One of the key demands of the Kerslake report was for a ‘Birmingham leadership group’ to be set up independent of the Council. It is worth quoting what Kerslake says:
“The council should facilitate the creation of a new independent Birmingham leadership group. The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.
This group should be used to help guide and deliver both the vision for the council and the partnership approach across the city. The group should be independent of the council, representative of the city’s communities.” (p55. Emphasis in original)
The Council has now published two documents at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/futurecouncil which reveal what the Council has done so far and what it is planning to do. One is called ‘Birmingham Partners – The Birmingham City Partnership Group Confidential Update Briefing for BIIP’ (Birmingham Independent Improvement Partnership). Why it is called ‘confidential ‘ isn’t explained, but it is deeply symptomatic of its approach. The other is called the ‘Future Council Programme Plan V0.4’ and is a detailed work programme of 569 tasks with dates for commencement and completion.
The Briefing begins by stating the problem:
‘… there has been little collective progress on key issues such as employment and skills, social inclusion, (until recently) vulnerable children, child poverty, health and wellbeing. This suggests that existing partnership models have not been fit for purpose or complicit in a system that has not been fit for purpose and that new ways of viewing and delivering partnerships need to be considered.’ [There are no page or paragraph numbers]
And the solution:
‘We should also be clear about what Birmingham Partners is not. It is not a hierarchy. It does not seek to replace or override the democratic accountability of elected members. It is not responsible for the performance and functions of the City’s existing partnerships. It is not an exclusive group of the ‘great and the good’. It does not allocate funding. It does not have a formal budget. Rather, it is an attempt to ‘wire a network’ of existing partnerships from the city to district to community level, harness the potential of collaborative working and move the city forward into a more positive, shared and connected future.’
A new approach by the Council that was open, inclusive, participatory and democratic would be welcomed. But read the documents and you will see that the Council’s model is exactly the opposite: an exclusive top-down body of precisely the ‘great and good’.
The secret and exclusive Steering Group
Let’s begin by looking at the ‘Steering Group’. Its ‘key objectives’ include:
- Developing a shared vision for what Birmingham could and should be
- Prioritising actions necessary to deliver this vision
- Identifying how sectors and organisations themselves can contribute directly to the delivery of the vision, and to complement the activities of the City Council
- Improving the effectiveness of civic and wider leadership
Clearly it is intended to be a powerful body. So who is on it? ‘The current membership of the Steering Group is broadly representative of the various sectors within the city that Birmingham Partners is seeking to attract.’
But there is no information in the two documents or elsewhere on the Future Council website as to who the members are. There is a Birmingham Partners website at www.birminghampartners.com which names some partners: BVSC, Sport Birmingham, Birmingham Community Healthcare, Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, Birmingham, Aston and Birmingham City Universities, Ashram Moseley (a housing association), and BCC itself. But there is no information about any other partners, or how you can become one.
You might wonder how this mysterious Steering Group was set up. On 1 February 2015, according to the Tasks document, the Council held ‘a stakeholder event to invite partners to take the lead in setting up a “City Leadership Group” and developing a city vision.’ Notice the name. It was originally a City Leadership Group, in line with Kerslake. Now it is called ‘Birmingham Partners’, but does that represent a less directive role or just a public relations re-naming?
If you weren’t fortunate enough to be picked as a stakeholder maybe you got this invitation?
According to the Briefing Professor David Eastwood, Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, ‘hosted a private dinner with guests from all of the key partner areas across the city, which looked at the role of a Birmingham Partnership Group and considered concerns around issues such as democratic mandate, ensuring local involvement and learning points from previous work in this area.’
You weren’t on Eastwood’s dinner party list? Bad luck, but maybe you were invited when ‘The Council hosted a workshop in April that invited key partners to share respective plans about future roles and delivery models, identify points of consensus and divergence and spot opportunities for future collaboration, co-ordination and alignment.’ Didn’t get an invitation? Pity, because the Steering Group met for the first time on 27 May. But there was still a chance on 8th July when the Council held an event at the MAC with over 70 representatives from partner organisations invited.
Still left out? Oh dear, it looks like you just aren’t the sort of people the Council wants to play a role in ‘city leadership’, because, according to the Tasks document, the ‘Formal launch of “City Leadership Group” / “Birmingham Partnership Group” ‘ will be between 1 September and 31 October 2015.
What is the Steering Group doing?
But the work of the Steering Group has already started, even before it is formally launched. According to the Tasks document, working groups or what it calls ‘cohorts’ in the following areas have already been set up to run for various periods between 23 June and 30 November:
- Vulnerable children
- SEND and vulnerable adults
- Health and well-being
- Economic development
- Older adults
- Education and skills
Again, the membership of these ‘cohorts’ is completely secret. Nor do we know what they have been doing. Nor do we know what ‘key community groups per cohort’ have been identified in the period, as the Task document stipulates, between 14 July and 10 September. Kerslake says ‘The group should be …representative of the city’s communities.’ (p55), but there is no evidence that this is the case. But we do know that among those not invited to participate, and kept in the dark, are the unions of those workers involved in any of the social services listed, or in business and economic development in the city. It all makes a complete mockery of Bore’s claims of transparency in how the Council will work.
What about public consultation?
The Tasks document says that Consultation starts on 9 December 2015, with a BIIP public session on 14 December 2015. But the timescale proves that this so-called consultation will be purely token, since by 31 December 2015 – yes, 3 weeks after it starts, and including Christmas – a ‘macro vision for the whole city’ will be agreed.
According to the Briefing document, from December to March 2016:
‘Once the vision has been agreed and signed up to, we need to formally develop any governance arrangements for the wider Birmingham Partners and clearly establish roles and responsibilities that will enable the group to move into the “influencing the mainstream” space. This would be the period where we seek to identify the key influential partners that could form a ‘leadership’ group going forward, bearing in mind that membership of this group will flex and change dependent on the areas of focus and where resources lie.’
Devolution to Districts and to the Combined Authority
The ‘partnership activities’ of the City Leadership Group don’t just apply at the citywide level. The Task document says ‘Develop recommendations to shape devolution of partnership activity from a citywide to District level – 1 September – 30 October 2015’. A ‘remodelled district structure’ has been decided in June 2015 and a ‘new district and ward structure’ implemented between 1 July and 30 September. What are these new structures? Has anyone seen the difference? What consultation has taken place?
Furthermore, the Task document ‘Recommend options and opportunities to devolve partnership activity from a citywide to a regional level’ – that is, the new Combined Authority. What it and the Districts have in common of course is that there is no popular representation or participation. They are as exclusive as the Birmingham Partners Group itself.
What power will this unelected oligarchy have over the Council?
We have pointed out the change of name in the Briefing document – though not in the Tasks – from City Leadership Group to Birmingham Partners. This leaves unresolved the question of what power this body will have. Kerslake is unambiguous: “The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.” (p55)
Is the Council hoping to get away with watering this down to a less prescriptive role, signalled by the change of name to Birmingham Partners? If so, will Kerslake accept this? Or is this just a public relations manoeuvre to make the handing over of veto power over Council policies to an unelected oligarchy seem more palatable? And if so, what will the City Leadership Group do to enforce its version of a City Plan, and what sanctions will it be able to apply to hold councillors and officers to account?
Open up the Birmingham Partners Group – we should all be able to participate in ‘City Leadership’!
We need an urgent change of direction – seize the opportunity to create a democratic forum where everyone can contribute to the vision and leadership of this city.
- No external veto powers over elected Council policy
- Open up the process – no more secrecy, and a proper democratic consultation process
- Open up the Birmingham Partners Group to inclusive representation of all the ‘stakeholders’ across the city, including the trade unions and community organisations